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November 28, 2004


belle waring

I call bullshit. I vote yes on continued life of the novel.

Shameless in Manila

I second Ms Waring's carefully-calibrated judgement. "The novel is dying, so it needs a Hero blah blah." This is Superman building himself a Lex in the garage.


It's rubbish. People might not be reading his novels in twenty-five years but you can bet your bottom dollar Harry Potter will be read just as widely as today. Thank God for that because there's a whole lot of "brilliance, human understanding and language" in those books. Or not as the case may be.

PZ Myers

If the best you can do is say that Harry Potter will be read, then the novel is doomed. The Potter books just aren't that great, and even if they were, it's bad news if kids have to go digging in Grandma's attic to find dusty old books from decades past to read.

Are people still writing novels? Am I still sometimes surprised and charmed by some new book? Then the novel isn't dying.

ben wolfson

It's official; netcraft confirms it: the novel is dying.

Lawrence White

The novel is dead? It's going to have to decompose quite a while before it can catch up to poetry.

& just because something's dead, doesn't mean it stops moving. Witness the Catholic Church.

& there are worse things than being dead. As Ray Davis so nicely put it, "Twentieth-century-and-later Anglo poetry is interesting because it's a dead art. The dead have one great advantage: They don't have to make a living."

Kip Manley

Why would there be fewer posts here? Because it’s more fun to talk about one’s fannish reaction to a poppish, vibrant work than to discuss yet again the oft-bruited death of an entire idiom?

The trouble with grand pronouncements such as “the death of the novel” lies in definition, of course. What on earth do you mean by “death”? How about “novel”? —Roth, at least, is pretty specific about what he means by the first: “in twenty or twenty-five years people will read these things at all,” because “there are other things for people to do, other ways for them to be occupied, other ways for them to be imaginatively engaged, that are I think probably far more compelling than the novel.” And here, he’s not without his point: there are works already more compelling and imaginatively engaging to people than the novel: long-form video games and serial television dramas provide some similar experiences in terms of immersion and depth, but in ways already more imaginatively engaging and compelling than thick mass-market wodges of prose: to judge from the amount of time and money spent producing and consuming, the novel’s already on the ropes.

(Why, yes: that statement is full of glib assumptions and hastily papered-over assertions. —Before we move on, I’ll just note that any shortcomings to be found in the filmic [or ludic] adaptations of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter is comparing the wrong thing: better, instead, to look at The Sopranos and The Corrections and ask which does it better, for whatever value of “it.” Except I haven’t read The Corrections. But the first season of The Sopranos? Wow.)

Moving on: what, then, is meant by “novel”? Roth doesn’t really say flat-out, which is good, since it’s stupid to try. (I can never remember precisely how my own favorite definition was originally worded or who said it, but it runs something like this: a work in prose of a certain length that has something wrong with it.) But if you can’t really say what something is, how can you be sure it’s dead? Will people twenty to twenty-five years from now really no longer be writing or reading large chunks of text about made-up people and events? Considering the Nielsen Haydens’ perennial point, that more people read more text now than ever before; considering that one of the ways people engage with the more compelling things for people to do and be occupied cited above is to write and share and read large chunks of text about the characters and settings and events, well: I’d call bullshit, myself. (Would this be good? Artistically engaging? Remotely worth your personal time and trouble? Who cares? It’s awful damn silly to declare something dead just because you don’t like it anymore.)

Roth does limit the field, though, even if he doesn’t actually flat-out define what he means: “these things,” he says, won’t be read, and by “these things” he’s referring back up to what he’d been going on about when talking about his work: “these things,” “this kind of book,” take him “between two and three years to write”; it’s difficult, because at the beginning you don’t know what you have, but it’s also difficult at the middle and the end; the ambition of this work, “these things,” is to “broaden the subject,” while at the same time “having the subject enacted by people.” —So there’s a very specific idea of the novel he’s talking about, even if he doesn’t articulate it all that clearly. And though he doesn’t say so, and I have no real grounds for saying so myself, I’d still lay down dollars for donuts that he’s got some very specific modes of production in mind: maybe not so specific as a hardcover edition that’s out for a year or so before the trade paperback, but probably not so inclusive as a hundred-and-twenty-word chapter a pop downloaded daily into your mobile. So, no: he probably wouldn’t be too excited about fan fiction, say. (I’m not, myself. De gustibus.)

But the thing is, the novel, in that sense, is already just about as dead as it’s going to get. Has been for a while. Had its brief day in the sun at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and it’s been mourned perennially by cranks and curmudgeons ever since. The Going Out of Business signs in the window are sun-faded, for God’s sake.

But I’ve gone on longer than I intended. How about this: I’ll still be alive in twenty to twenty-five years (God willing, creek don’t rise, knock wood). And I’ll still be reading novels. There’s a fuckload already written that I want to that I haven’t gotten to yet, if nothing else. Among them, the oeuvre of one Philip Roth. So.


yeah but you won't be a people by then anymore Kip, you'll be an institution. Something for people to point at and say, see, that there's our novel reader.

good work, maybe i can that somewhere too.

ben wolfson

But the thing is, the novel, in that sense, is already just about as dead as it’s going to get. Has been for a while. Had its brief day in the sun at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and it’s been mourned perennially by cranks and curmudgeons ever since. The Going Out of Business signs in the window are sun-faded, for God’s sake.

Given that the novel, in Europe anyway, is of relatively recent birth, I wonder why it is that people are so concerned about its demise? By which I mean: there are obviously long-term trends in intellectual productions; as good as no one writes verse plays anymore, or tragedies or comedies of a certain kind, or epic poetry, or didactic poetry, or practically any other kind of poetry. Why should the catalogue of available idioms be frozen in time? Is it just that certain forms of expression, like the novel, was current at the time that literary productions written in a language people actually spoke started to be studied intensively, thereby becoming enshrined? (Or something. What I actually know about the rise of the study of modern literature you could fit in a fly's ass.)

belle waring

Kip: I have both read the Corrections and seen the first season of the Sopranos, and the latter is indeed better.

Lawrence White

Ben Wolfson wrote:

as good as no one writes verse plays anymore, or tragedies or comedies of a certain kind, or epic poetry, or didactic poetry, or practically any other kind of poetry.

Oh, there are plenty of people wriitng poetry, but there isn't anyone reading it. Or rather, the exact same set that writes it reads it. Give or take a few dozen stalwarts such as Ray Davis.

Sounds pointless, eh? Because when we say "dead," we don't mean "can't be done anymore," as much as we mean "doesn't have an audience." But, as Ray pointed out, dead also allows for a certain freedom. Free from the constraints of a mass audience, folks can do amazing things. I don't know that any living poet is doing all-time great work. Perhaps we're too close to tell, perhaps none of them are. But I'm sure the about to be all dead "Greatest Generation" generation of poets put out some all-time work.

When we do stop writing poetry, we won't just have lost a genre. We will have lost some of the higher functions of our language. If I may put it barbarously, we will have lost the ability in language to act & reflect simultaneously. I'm certain, though I haven't read The Corrections, that, though I haven't seen the Sopranos, that the television show is much smarter and much more imaginative than the novel. Which shows you what a failed opportunity the novel was. Even a well-made one can end up a profound failure. But I don't see how even the best made television show can do 1/10th the imaginative work (shorthand for "exploring the possibilities of meaning making")the best novel could do. & don't get me started on video games.

I would say that there's a difference between entertainment & thinking, & even 99% of what is called thinking (e.g. philosophy) in the end is just an obscure entertainment. Yes, I'm full of crap, but take for example the fact that the definition of the novel as "a work in prose of a certain length that has something wrong with it" comes from the poet, Randall Jarrell. I find it unremarkable that a poet would have such a keen sense of what was at stake in the novel.

ben wolfson

When we do stop writing poetry, we won't just have lost a genre. We will have lost some of the higher functions of our language.

Actually, I'd be interested in knowing when this came to be thought of as one of the defining characteristics of poetry.

Lawrence White

I think it's a fairly late development, out of High Modernism. & I'd expect it's informed by contemporary philosophical developments. Literary modernism being more than just the writing of a period, it's also the re-conception of the literary as such. Just as the literary as such was collapsing. (Poetry: Dead & Loving It!)

Lawrence White

Shelley's Defense of Poetry is probably a farther back predecessor.

Kip Manley

Randall Jarrell; thanks. I remember it from a Samuel Delany essay, where he doubtless cited it properly, and I just forgot. And, yeah, I kinda stacked the deck with the whole Sopranos/Corrections thing. (But only a little!) —As for the imaginative work of television serials, or video games (massively multiplayer or otherwise), as compared with that of the novel: I'm reminded of what a friend once said, upon leaving a late-night showing of Alien: "Remember—they aren't better. They aren't worse. They're just different."

Lawrence White

"Remember—they aren't better. They aren't worse. They're just different."

I try to keep this in mind. I try to resist the Adorno "movies suck, pop music sucks" thing. Because movies & pop are very important to me. But I don't understand how they are important, not the way I understand how poetry is important. & I can't escape the feeling that they are much cruder than poetry, mostly because they are much more affective than poetry. & I can't even begin to start playing video games, because I know I'll end up doing nothing else w/my life, & I'm already worthless enough.

Matt Weiner

One thing about The Corrections vs. The Sopranos--there are a lot more works in the respective of comparable scope 'n' achievement to The Corrections than to The Sopranos. (Oz, the Wire, Six Feet Under, any more? I don't watch TV hardly, so can't say really.) 'Cos something like The Sopranos is a massive massive multi-person undertaking, and there aren't that many outlets for it, while something like The Corrections can be done by one crank in his/her office who just needs food 'n'stuff for a year. So those of us who want to dip into lots of different imaginative worlds will still need the novel, I think.

(Slightly OT question: What does it mean to say that a novel is old? Further relevant material if I ever put up the post in which I explain that John should read Transit of Venus before he forms any definite opinions about Shirley Hazzard.)

bob mcmanus

"& I can't even begin to start playing video games, because I know I'll end up doing nothing else w/my life, & I'm already worthless enough."

Beware indeed. Kids, don't do Halo! I used to be a respectable psuedo-intellectual in the seventies, but RPG's and the WWW ate my brain, like those eggs in the frying pan. The last art novels I read were Ironweed, Falling in Place, and the Names by DeLillo:I pondered the marginal value of further decipherment and swandived down to Stuart Kaminsky and Zork.

des von bladet

Wow, people still read novels? Weird! But also kind of kewl in a bizarre retro kind of way.

Do you all cosplay and read your novels while sipping tea and nibbling cucumber samwidges and everything?

belle waring

des von bladet: totally. I even make scones and surreptitiously drink neat whiskey. I have some Victorian dresses but I find that naked novel-reading really hews more to the core of the experience. slightly OT: I really don't go for DeLillo. at. all.

Matt Weiner

DeLillo is wildly uneven I find. Underworld was full of cool stuff, not sure if it all hangs together or even if that's a valid criticism; Libra I liked; End Zone was like totally pointless; White Noise had some good bits (mostly the middle section and the conversations about Tennessee Ernie Williams and such) but seemed like a compilation of unearned ominoso gestures. Like, can you tell me what Hitler studies has to do with anything else in the book? Except DeLillo thought "It would be really edgy to have this guy work in Hitler studies?" And now he's been scooped by the History Channel.

bob mcmanus

I liked the DeLillo; hated Falling in Place; was bored by Ironweed (baseball as metaphor, yawn).

I just lost my religion. I worshipped the novel in the seventies, sacrificed my eyesight and peace of mind to struggling thru Mann and Hawkes and Austen. I decided that Gaddis and Pynchon and Coover weren't adding that much technically to what was done in the twenties. I decided that tho these guys were really smart, they weren't necessarily wise; that if wise, the wisdom wasn't transferable, regardless of the effort of the reader; and that whatever the level of architectonic achievement, glorious tho it might be, it didn't change a damn thing. The authors I suspect hope otherwise. Art is entirely useless, and the novel as religion was dead. At least for me. I didn't care anymore.

Last good novel I remember enjoying is Darconville's Cat, by Alexander Theroux. A hilariously misogynistic romance. Recommended.

ben wolfson

I enjoyed the Recognitions a lot. But I tend not to analyze novels very much.

Matt Weiner

Other unsolicited review: Beattie's short stories are much better than her novels, the best of which is Love Always. But if you hated falling in place, you probably just don't like her. 'n' all Coover is tour de force, but John's Wife is much much more. I'm still a full member of the church, though.


I never read anything by Phillip Roth, except Portnoy. I began to read American Pastoral, but found it stupid and quit. My feeling is that Roth could be a first-rate hack, but chooses instead to be a serious novelist, whatever that is, who's not really worth the trouble...mine, anyway. Currently, I'm having at Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos: Archives. I'm perpetually working through her oeuvre, but I have to take breaks. I think she is about as good an example as anyone of the value there can be in strenuous reading. To me, certainly more so than in Henry James, or whatever might be the canonical example. I think it's very unfortunate the degree to which she has been banished to genre and period land, while, imo, pretty tedious stuff like Thomas Pynchon gets passed on as like the great literature of its time.

Matt Weiner

Forty comments on Buffy, 25 here. Hola!

I think Lessing gets a lot of non-genre respect, though maybe Canopus is unfairly relegated (I haven't read any). Then, I don't think Pynchon is tedious (especially not V.).


Yeah, I don't know quite how to put the point I want about Lessing, but it seems to me that the earlier stuff, the Children of Violence series and whatnot, gets pointed to often mostly in terms of that "people who were Marxists and then became ex-Marxists" thing, and maybe something about "women who..." in particular, and I guess I don't think that's good enough. And the later "fantastical" stuff, I feel like I detect, has acquired some connotation of "trippyness," or whatever, that I don't think is really fair. But maybe I'm imagining that.

As for Pynchon, I dunno, I read Vineland recently and enjoyed it pretty well on account of he had a pretty decent beat on a certain sort of Humboldt County, California, type thing, but I just have never found him all he's cracked up to be. At best it's like a dazzling manipulation of forms, but I always feel like he lacks guts.


And, for what it's worth, I highly(!) recommend the Canopus books.


I don't mean to be insulting at all...
but my own experience has been one of reading novels voraciously in my youth/adolescence (of all kinds: I read Shogun at 12, forced myself through War and Peace at 17, have read some of the classics, some hack work, some science fiction, etc etc).
Sometime in early adulthood, I switched to non-fiction, and really haven't gone back. I'd rather learn something than experience something, now.
In any event, my overall experience has been that novel reading (or, rather, fiction reading) is alot more appealing when one is lonely and unfocused in life (i.e adolescence). Now that I have a job, and a family, I don't need to read about a life to experience it-I experience it every day. I'm wondering if fiction reading, which I once assumed was a sign of intelligence and sophistication, is actually a sign of loneliness and strange insulation from life?


Ray Davis

He pondered a moment. "I don't know why I want to write one. I'm sure it would be easier to make a psychorama if I had the equipment, the money, and the connections in a psychorama studio. But that's not what I want. And I have no idea whether you'll be 'in it' or not. I haven't begun to think about the subject. I'm still making notes on the form." (They frowned.) "On structure, the aesthetics of the whole business. You can't just sit down and write, you know. You have to think. The novel was an art form. I have to invent it all over again before I can write one. The one _I_ want to write, anyway."

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